Tibetan Buddhism is enjoying growing popularity in the West and in Southeast Asia. But as the religious empire grows, followers are asking more difficult questions of the dharma as well as demanding greater transparency of the administration.
On 27 September 1992, eight-year-old Ugen Thinley was enthroned at Tsurphu monastery, near Lhasa, as the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, an incarnation second only to the Dalai Lama in his importance to Mahayana Buddhists. The ceremony should have occasioned universal joy among followers of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, who have waited more than a decade for the reincarnation of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa to be found. But doubts about the authenticity of this “reincarnation” have struck at the very roots of the Karma Kagyu lineage and have split the faithful into two camps.
The first believes that Thinley is the rightful occupant of the Karmapa’s throne, and are accused of being seduced by political manipulators in league with China; the second believes he is the wrong boy and so are discounted as troublemakers. The silent majority of followers see both camps as forsaking the dharma (the spiritual path) for samsara (the cycle of rebirth caused by attachment to worldly affairs).
At stake is the purity of the Buddhist teachings, handed down by the first Gyalwa Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, to followers in an unbroken line since he founded the Karma Kagyu school in the early 12th century. But even the unworldly cannot turn a blind eye to the fate of the priceless and fabulous treasures that have accumulated over nearly nine centuries at the core of what is today a religious empire that governs some 500 centres worldwide.
Like the other three major schools of Tibetan Buddhism the Nyingma, Sakya and Gelug — the Kagyu sect reorganised itself outside Tibet following the Chinese invasion. On leaving Tsurphu, monastery the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, chose Rumtek monastery, in Sikkim, as his seat in exile. Rumtek was the second Karma Kagyu monastery to be built, in 1740. From there the Karmapa administered and personally held the affairs of the sect together, despite travelling widely to promote the dharma. His death from stomach cancer, in the United States in 1981, left the faithful with a spiritual hunger that could be sated only by the Karmapa’s reincarnation. It left others with a more worldly hunger — for a position of religious influence, political power arid personal financial gain.
Sacred letters, magic, political intrigues, fabulous treasure and big business; the events leading up to Ugen Thinley’s enthronement read more like a modern-day thriller than religious custom. The roots of the controversy lie in the relationships between four men — themselves incarnations of important Kagyu spiritual masters — who, traditionally, were prominent in regional administration as well as in upholding the dharma. They are rinpoches; incarnations of spiritually enlightened beings who have chosen to forego nirvana for continual rebirth in order to lead others to enlightenment.
Regents of Rumtek
When a Karmapa dies, he leaves behind the total Kagyu teachings in chosen disciples who can later transmit them to his reincarnation. Tai Situ Rinpoche, Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche were thus groomed by the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa and, on his death, appointed as regents by the Karmapa Charitable Trust until the 17th Karmapa was identified and came of age. On 5 November 1981., when the 16th Kannapa died, they held in their hands the future of the lineage,
Since then a number of candidates had been put forward as possible reincarnations of the 16th Karmapa. Unlike other rinpoches, most Karmapas leave letters predicting their reincarnations. The letters usually detail the name of the parents, time and place of birth and the date on which the instruction letter is to be opened. After a meeting at Rumtek, on 23 February 1986, the regents issued a statement in which they claimed that a thorough search of the 16th Karmapa’s belongings revealed an “inner” and an “outer” letter. The outer letter contained instructions to remove obstacles to a speedy rebirth. The inner letter would not be opened until the future date marked outside. But followers were to hear no other news until 1992.
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is rich enough to attract Western followers who, in secular life, would be considered poles apart. Its neat logic appeals to would-be ascetics and mystics as well as to those who see self-development through meditation as the most worthwhile goal of life. But there are others irresistibly attracted by the colourful rituals, magic and miracles of rinpoches who offer, literally, the wisdom of the ancients.
That politics has interfered with the smooth running of religious affairs is certainly nothing new either to the Kagyu sect or to any other religious organisation. What is perhaps new is a greater demand for transparency from followers, particularly newly inducted Westerners, of the sect’s internal affairs. Again, like any religious sect, the Kagyu is only partly open to the scrutiny of followers, who themselves are reluctant to disclose unsavoury aspects they may stumble upon.
Since the 16th Karmapa died there have followed years of mudslinging and politicking between supporters of Shamar Rinpoche, who doubt the authenticity of the most recent reincarnation, and supporters of Situ Rinpoche, who put Ugen Thinley on the throne. During the past decade, Shamar Rinpoche has been accused, because of his relationship to the Bhutanese royal family, of trying to put a Bhutanese boy on the Karmapa’s throne; Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche has died; and Situ Rinpoche, backed by Gyaltsab Rinpoche, has been accused of trading a Chinese-approved Karmapa for the promise of greater influence in the Kagyu sect and political power in a future, autonomous Tibet.
At the centre of the controversy is the authenticity of another letter, purportedly written by the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, giving details of where and when to find his reincarnation. Situ produced this letter at a meeting of the four regents, held in Rumtek on 19 March 1992 — more than six years after the four had publicly announced the existence of the “inner” and “outer” letters. According to Shrunar. he and Jamgon Kongtrul doubted the authenticity of Situ’s letter, but Gyaltsab immediately accepted it without even reading it. Why had it taken Situ more than a decade to offer it? Why was half of the letter blurred and the signature unclear?
Situ’s defence was that he was unaware that he had the prediction letter. In January 1981, he said, at the Oberoi Hotel in Calcutta, the 16th Karmapa had given him a protection chakra wrapped in yellow brocade. The Karmapa told him that it would prove useful in the future. Situ then wore it around his neck for a few years. Months of travelling in the heat of India and Southeast Asia persuaded him to transfer the brocade-covered chakra from around his neck to a phurba, worn around the waist. Some time in 1989, he removed the chakra and found that it was a testament, upon which the Karmapa had written that it should be opened in the Iron Horse Year, which began on 26 February 1990.
But Situ’s explanations failed to convince Shamar and Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoches. Shamar called for a forensic test of the letter which Situ rejected as improper. This disagreement probably marked the rift that still exists today between Situ and Shamar Rinpoches. The four decided that, since Jamgon Kongtrul was already preparing to visit Tibet, he should look for the reincarnation as per Situ’s letter and report back. They agreed to secrecy until an official announcement concerning the reincarnation to be made on 11 October 1992. As it turned out, Jamgon Kongtrul was not to reach Tibet.
Race for the Throne
At about 6.30 am on 26 April, through the drizzle on the national highway south to Siligtni, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche was trying out a new BMW, a gift from his brother. Accompanying the rinpoche and his driver were Tenzin Dorjee, his secretary, and one attendant. The car was reported to have been travelling at about 180 km per hour when the driver swerved to avoid hitting some birds on the road. The car skidded, fish-tailed for 30 to 40 metres and hit a tree so hard that all four passengers were thrown out of the vehicle.
The Kagyu sect lost one of its most important teachers, a man whom associates describe as sincere and selfless in his commitment to preparing the way for the 17th Karmapa. Shamar Rinpoche had also lost a colleague who shared his doubts about the authenticity of Situ’s letter.
The vacuum created by Jamgon Kongtrul’s death served only to emphasise the rift between Situ and Shamar Rinpoches and the two factions began to work independently. At Rumtek, on 17 May, Situ said that the death of Jamgon Kongtrul had altered the regents’ plans. He said that he and Gyaltsab were unable to meet Shamar because he was on retreat when they arrived at Rumtek and, before they knew it, had left for the United States. He and Gyaltsab had therefore decided to forge ahead with the plans made at the 19 March meeting. Situ made no mention, however, of the doubts that Shamar and Jamgon Kongtrul had raised about the prediction letter he had produced at that March meeting.
On 7 June 1992, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches arrived in Dharamsala to seek, as is customary, the Dalai Lama’s approval for the reincarnation. But the Dalai Lama had left for the Rio Earth Summit and so the regents had to make their request by telephone and fax. On 9 June the Dalai Lama’s Private Office faxed back. “The birthplace of the reincarnation, the names of the mother and father, and so forth, are in agreement with the sacred letter. It is very good that inside and outside Tibet, Tulkus, lamas, and the monasteries belonging to the lineage, are all one pointed in their devotion and aspiration. It is appropriate to recognise and confirm what was stated above.” If he knew of the dissent among the regents, the Dalai Lama made no reference to it.
The 7th of June found Shamar Rinpoche back at Rumtek only to learn that the other two regents had left for Dharamsala, without consulting him. Events now began to move rapidly and are detailed in The Karmapa Papers, which Kagyu followers believe was produced by supporters of Shamar Rinpoche.
The Karmapa Papers is a collection of a decade of selected letters among the four regents, eyewitness accounts of the installing of the 17th Karmapa, translations of important Tibetan documents pertaining to the search for the reincarnation, and interviews with the main players in the story. It was printed in Hong Kong and appears to have been compiled by a group of Western followers of the 16th Karmapa who sign themselves only as The Editors. They come across as disillusioned by the events leading to the recent enthronement and claim that the document is an attempt to clarify matters.
According to transcripts in the document, Shamar talked to followers at Rumtek on 9 June. He referred to the letter produced by Situ Rinpoche in March 1992 which “appeared containing the name of the father, the name of the child’s mother, the place… Everything is clear. This is quite problematic”. He expressed surprise that Situ and Gyaltsab had gone ahead and that a search party had already left for the boy.
The next day the other two regents returned to Rumtek. By then, the atmosphere at the monastery had grown tense. Situ decided to give his version of events and informed followers that the Dalai Lama had confirmed the reincarnation and that the boy would soon be enthroned at Rumtek. In the same speech he dropped a bombshell. According to him, the “inner” and “outer” letters announced in February 1986 had never existed!
Situ said that pressure from followers to fund the 17th Karmapa, and the absence of a true instruction letter, had persuaded the rinpoches to tell a white lie. They decided to place a poem of the 16th Karmapa in a gau, or relic box, but they could not find a poem. Gyaltsab remembered a four-line meditation prayer taught him by the 16th Karmapa and Jamgon Kongtrul recorded it and placed it in the gau. At this stage all four were still convinced that either a true letter would eventually turn up or that the 17th Karmapa would reveal himself.
By revealing this white lie’, many disillusioned followers believe that Situ Rinpoche achieved what he had set into motion as soon as the 16th Karmapa died—to gradually marginalise the other regents in their roles as administrators and protectors of the lineage. The two leaders of the Karma Kagyu sect were now in open conflict.
Sharmar Rinpoche, in June suddenly hinted that a close disciple of the 16th Karmapa may have trustworthy information on the reincarnation.
Rumtek was to see more drama on 12 June, when Situ and Gyaltsab returned called a meeting to report on the Dalai Lama’s confirmation. Shamar Rinpoche arrived, but with some soldiers in tow, and pandemonium ensued. According to Shamar, an Indian Army general had informed him on 11 June that a bodyguard unit was being sent to protect him. It arrived during the night and the next day followed him to the monastery.
The mess seemed to be cleared up on 16 June when Urgyen Tulku, senior to and respected by both Shamar and Situ, arrived at Rumtek to mediate. Urgyen Tulku said news of Shamar’s dissension would cause negativity and bloodshed in Tibet. There was also Dharamsala’s confirmation to consider: “Who am I to say that the Dalai Lama’s approval is in error?” Shamar Rinpoche asked. He withdrew his request for forensic analysis of Situ Rinpoche’s letter.
On 22 June, Situ and Gyaltsab Rinpoches sent an official announcement to followers declaring that the 17th Karmapa had been found, approved by the Dalai Lama and that all disagreements had been resolved. Beijing, on 29 June, gave its approval of the “living Buddha”. On 27 September, he was enthroned at Tsurphu.
However, according to Beru Khyentse, a high Kagyu rinpoche, Shamar Rinpoche is still waiting for the 17th Karmapa.
If the supporters of Shamar Rinpoche and the editors of the Karmapa Papers are to be believed, it would appear that Situ Rinpoche, backed by Gyaltsab Rinpoche, the Derge Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Association, and Chinese officials, manipulated events in order to enthrone Ugen Thinley. A number of factors suggest this interpretation.
First, is the Chinese reaction to the whole affair. Ugen Thinley is the first incarnate lama to have been officially recognised by Beijing since the abortive Tibetan uprising of 1959. A Tibetan newspaper dating from the summer quoted the letter of authorisation from the Chinese Department of Religion, of the General Home Ministry, which claimed that: “the son of Urgyen Thrinle, of the nomads Dondrub and Loka, born in Lhatog Shang, in the district of Chapdo of the Autonomous Region of Tibet can be considered as the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa and will later be enthroned as such. The Tsurphu monastery did an excellent job in protecting the reincarnation and choosing his teacher and attendants…” The letter also expressed the hope that the 17th Karmapa, “after having studied well philosophy and all the other sciences and possessing all the qualities turned towards the dharma, will become an individual loyal to his socialist motherland.”
Secondly, the regents had decided on 19 March 1992 to wait for Jamgon Kongtrul’s report from Tibet before making any public statements. But, according to the documents presented in the Karmapa Papers, Situ wrote a letter one week later stating that the search for the 17th Karmapa was underway. It also seems that, regardless of the agreements made at the 19 March meeting, the process for installing Ugen Thinley was already ongoing. Drubpon Dechen Rinpoche, the head lama of Tsurphu, said that a search party bound for east Tibet had left Tsurphu on 8 April. He also said that the search party had received instructions from Situ’s representative, Akong Rinpoche. But the dates do not tie up; by other accounts Akong Rinpoche did not arrive at Tsurphu until late April.
In his Rumtek talk of 9 June 1992, Shamar referred first to a Nepal-based “Tibetan committee” that had been spreading rumours that Shamar wanted to install a Bhutanese Karmapa and that, in Kagyu tradition, the Situ Rinpoche usually recognises the Karmapa’s reincarnation. Then he referred to a group of Khampas from Nepal who arrived at Rumtek in March 1992 with Akong Rinpoche “acting as a chief of them”. Shamar said that, at the 19 March meeting, this group was pushing ‘the regents for an instant decision about the Karmapa’s reincarnation.
Thirdly, there is some suspicion about the relative ease with which Akong and Situ, compared to other Rinpoches and lamas, may travel in Tibet. According to the Samye-Ling newsletter of Spring 1985, Akong Rinpoche said: “I am very happy about the flexibility of the policy of the Chinese Government because they have asked us (myself and H.E. the Tai Situpa) to come whenever we like to Tibet, either for a short term or a long-term visit.”
All this suggests that Ugen Thinley was found, accepted by the Chinese and plans set in motion for his instalment in Tsurphu before Jamgon Kongtrul’s proposed reconnaissance trip. Reproduced and translated documents in the Karmapa Papers imply that, for whatever reasons, the Chinese considered Ugen Thinley a suitable 17th Karmapa and that Situ allowed them to have their way.
Beneath the Maroon
Underlying the concern and confusion over Ugen Thinley’s enthronement is an acceptance which perhaps non-Buddhists find difficult to understand. What if Ugen Thinley really is the wrong boy?
The doctrine of reincarnation is complex. It is difficult to understand for Buddhist followers, let alone non-Buddhists. Questioning the doctrine from a scientific perspective is even more perplexing as there must first be consensus on the meaning of words such as mind, spirit and so on. Having said that, rinpoches talk of emanations of the same mind. Thus one mind may be reborn as different emanations in different bodies. To the cynical, emanations would seem to be a neat way of explaining away mistakes made in the identification of rinpoches and reincarnations were it not for the fact that even rinpoches admit that the “spirituality” of emanations can vary considerably.
Beni Khyentse Rinpoche tells a story that is perhaps instructive. There are five Khyentses, believed to be “emanations” of the same being. The Beru Khyentse referred to in this article is Tibetan but tells of a Bhutanese man, also recognised as the reincarnation of the previous Beru Khyentse. Unlike the Tibetan Beru Khyentse, his Bhutanese emanation was not acknowledged by the 16th Karmapa and today he is no longer interested in the dharma. Could Ugen Thinley be merely one emanation of the Karmapa?
Beni Khyentse accepts Ugen Thinley as the 17th Karmapa because he believes that the boy could not have survived the enthronement if he were not the true Karmapa, such is the power of the great “wishfulfilling jewel”. Western followers are still doubtful but, for reasons similar to Beru Khyentse’s, even they agree that if Ugen Thinley is not the Karmapa he is definitely a high rinpoche.
So does it matter if Ugen Thinley is the wrong boy? The unquestioning among the Kagyu faithful would not admit such a possibility. Increasingly, however, more difficult questions are being asked of the dharma, particularly by Westerners who come from a different cultural background in which he or she feels more secure in certainty. They perhaps are more willing to question ancient traditional methods of identification, are more willing to put Situ Rinpoche’s Letter through forensic tests, more willing to question Shamar Rinpoche’s right to withhold information from followers. And all this in the growing recognition that rinpoches are not necessarily all that enlightened and that the man is more important than the maroon.